High Spirits

Two Tucsonans have their eyes on the world's top vodka prize

Great notions can arise from the most unlikely places at the most unlikely times--like from a room full of friends sprawled out and wasted, at 2 a.m.

That is what happened about three years ago at Oleg Shishkovskiy's house one fateful night. Instead of the morning bringing hellish headaches, it brought the motivation to pursue one hell of an idea.

Almost as soon as Shishkovskiy and Jeff Sorrentino--now co-owners of S&S Spirits--bought houses next to one another, they realized they had something in common beyond investing in real estate: They both loved vodka.

Shishkovskiy, a then-recent Jewish refugee from Ukraine, and Sorrentino, a UA graduate and independent wine and beer broker, whiled away their free time sipping fine vodkas Shishkovskiy had brought with him from Ukraine. Sorrentino thought the Ukrainian vodkas were the best he had tried, and they started fiddling with the idea of starting an import business.

But it was after Shishkovskiy's now-infamous party, which was fueled by his Ukrainian vodka, that their idea blasted into full gear.

"People are still talking about that party to this day," Shishkovskiy said. "It was a wild one. But what really got us thinking was that in the morning, no one had bad hangovers--and they really should have."

Fully convinced there was something special about Ukrainian vodka, Shishkovskiy and Sorrentino decided they were going to find the best and import it into the United States.

They said they had a European friend send samples of the best 16 vodkas from across Eastern Europe. They then sent the samples to tasting panels across the country. The results confirmed their thoughts: The best vodka, according to the panels, was Khortytsa, a relatively unknown vodka produced by a new factory on Khortytsa Island, Ukraine.

"At that time, the factory was nothing; no one knew of it," Sorrentino said. "But when we went to visit it, we were blown away. It is a state-of-the-art facility producing what we think is the best vodka in the world."

They left the Ukraine with a contract for the sole rights to import Khortytsa vodka into the United States, and then began the long process of licensing the product for sale.

"It was a really big deal to get all the permits and licenses," Sorrentino said. "It took two years to get it all done."

However, those were two good years; while Sorrentino and Shishkovskiy persisted through the miles of red tape, Khortytsa vodka had taken off and become the No. 1 selling vodka in Eastern Europe, and the third-best-selling vodka in the world--and it hadn't even touched the U.S. market yet.

"That's because the Ukraine is a perfect place for vodka production," Shishkovskiy said. "It produces some of the best grains in the world, and is the historic home of vodka. People love it."

While a debate rages among hard-core vodka connoisseurs whether the roots of vodka are in Ukraine or Russia, there doesn't seem to be much argument that Khortytsa is among the finest.

According to statistics from Drinks International, a magazine that covers the spirits industry, Khortytsa is currently behind Smirnoff and Absolut, respectively the best and second-best selling vodkas in the world. And according to Sorrentino, the U.S. market accounts for the majority of the top two vodka makers' sales.

"After Khortytsa 'blew up' like it did, we began hearing about a lot of companies trying to get the rights to import it into the United States, but we held them," Sorrentino said. "It pissed a lot of people off."

Sorrentino said that once Khortytsa enters the U.S. market in full swing, it is conceivable--though far from certain--that it will become the best-selling vodka in the world.

Seven months ago, S&S Spirits began importing four of the 11 styles of vodka offered by Khortytsa. They have been test-marketing their classic, honey pepper and silver styles in Arizona; the platinum style is being sold in Russian-speaking communities across the country.

The results have been promising. Khortytsa platinum, which Sorrentino describes as having a very traditional flavor unique to the Russian palette, has all ready become the best-selling vodka in the U.S. Russian community, he said.

Likewise, Sorrentino said, the other vodkas' sales have been promising.

"Arizona is the perfect test market for new products," Sorrentino said. "You have just about every social-economic class in the state; it's where companies like Coca-Cola test-market new products."

In its four short years, Khortytsa has also won some big awards, Sorrentino said. At the 2007 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the largest held in the United States, each of the four styles of Khortytsa that S&S Spirits entered took home awards, with Khortytsa classic winning a gold medal.

"That gold medal tied Khortytsa classic with the world's best vodkas such as Belvedere and Chopin," Sorrentino said. "It really put us on the map."

Sorrentino said S&S Spirits is almost ready to launch the classic style nationally, and is just waiting for the completion of a comprehensive marketing campaign.

"We have also created a new label for the U.S. market and are shortening the name to Khor," Sorrentino said.

They plan to begin importing Khor classic into key states, like California and New York, this September; over the next year, S&S will incrementally begin importing the vodka into all of the states. Over the next few years, they will also introduce their other lines of vodka.

"We have a lot going for us," Sorrentino said.

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